DIY Elderberry Tincture: A Labor of Love

NOTE: This is a Special Guest Contribution from longtime BackdoorSurvival reader Donna!

More and more folks are looking to the natural world for answers to their ailments and rightly so.

Being in the mainstream medical profession as a registered nurse for over 35 years, I have seen the evolution of pharmaceutical treatments over time. I have been active in the field of medical research as a continuing education accreditor for several years as well. Part of my job was to read original medical studies and trials of many new drugs.

I have seen first-hand, the sometimes devastating side-effects of new drugs as they first come to the general public and how those adverse effects are under-reported. I mention this because I want to verify some of the feelings many of us have when we listen to the T.V. ads that flood the market.

I could safely bet that you have seen a dozen or more pharmaceutical advertisements for a particular medical condition that promises almost a miracle transformation until the middle of the ad when the voice begins the disclaimer which paraphrased goes something like this:

Side effects for *insert name of medication here* can decrease your ability to fight infections including tuberculosis, serious- sometimes fatal events such as lymphoma, or other types of cancer have happened, blood, liver or nervous system problems, serious allergic reactions and new or worsening heart failure have occurred.

Why does the pharmaceutical company list all those horrific side-effects anyway?

Because if an adverse event happens to you or a loved one, that disclaimer most always frees them of any liability. The law’s rationale is that you knew the possible problems yet you willingly took the drug (informed consent).

It’s important to:

  • Always consider the risk to benefit ratio because you are the one playing Russian roulette.
  • Question your doctor and your pharmacist.
  • Know the percentages on a deeper level than reported in a T.V. ad.

You may decide to use that drug and it will be helpful to you, however if there is a serious side-effect you are the one left without recourse because suing for damages almost never holds up in court: “the patient took the drug, knowing the possible side-effects“. Class action suits sometimes are an effective recourse but that usually works only if the company kept the medicine on the market after knowing many serious or deadly side effects were occurring.

By the way, one of these recently advertised drugs costs between $4500 and $5000 for 2 injectables!

My objective here is to bring to light the fact that for many diseases and discomforts, there are alternatives to these highly toxic and sometimes deadly chemical pharmaceuticals.

Those alternatives lie in the beautiful fields, meadows, woodlands, deserts, streams and by-ways all around us. Perhaps there are some remedies just outside your backdoor. It takes planning and steadily acquired knowledge to become more self-reliant in your health choices but it can be done one plant at a time.

It is empowering: knowledge is power.

Let’s Go!

So here we go on an elderberry foraging experience. Put on your boots and long-sleeved shirt, grab a bag, a pair of sharp clippers and bring along an identifying medicinal wild plants field book which you have already used to learn about the when, where, what and how to collect the often elusive elderberry.

Remember:

  1. Always get permission if you want to forage on someone else’s property.
  2. Never forage on government parkland.
  3. Never pick plants near a busy road where the car exhausts can make the plants toxic.
  4. Never over-harvest, insuring that the plants will continue to propagate year to year.
  5. Make sure of correct identification by checking closely that you do not harvest poisonous look-alike plants.

Elderberry Bush in Flower (Eastern)

There is a blue elderberry bush in the western US and the fragrant flowers are very similar to this eastern bush. Some Western bushes can grow to almost 20 feet tall. The Eastern one I harvested from this year was only about 8 feet so that made it easy to reach even the berry clusters on the highest branches.

But of course those are the ones the birds go for first. It was a daily battle to see who would get there first. I’d call it a draw.

Habitat: These plants like sunny, moist locations. They are often found near streams. My harvest was found at the edge of a cow pasture with a small marshy cattail / arrow head pond close by.

From Spring through mid-Summer flower clusters can be harvested. But if you decide to harvest them you won’t have the berries. This bush was relatively small, about 16-18 delicate flower clusters and I needed all the ripe berries I could get.

I know where another smaller bush is located and perhaps next year that bush will provide a higher yield so we can make elderflower fritters or dry some for later winter use in elderflower tea which is so helpful with colds, flu and fevers.

The Elderberries

Elderberries have been a natural remedy for centuries and the benefits continue to be investigated and rediscovered. Bioflavonoids and other proteins in the juice destroy the ability of cold and flu viruses to infect the cell. Folks who contract the flu who take elderberry juice or tincture report less severe symptoms and feel better much faster than those who do not.

Elderberry was actually used in 1995 to treat the flu epidemic in Panama. This is what was reported just after that swine flu outbreak in Panama, “A real flu fighter isn’t a cocktail shot in the arm; rather, a true flu fighter is a naturally antiviral, antibacterial, immune building powerhouse. One wonderful food medicine flourishing right among us is the elderberry. This flu fighting Spartan has been used throughout history to deter influenza virus. In fact, in 1995, an entire influenza epidemic was thwarted in Panama utilizing elderberry treatment.”

This newspaper goes on to say, “In 2005, researchers in London studied Black Elderberry and found that it’s 99 percent effective in fighting the Avian Flu (H5N1) virus. In Germany, scientists conducted studies that linked elderberry anthocyanins to enhanced immune function. Elderberry essentially works by boosting the production of cytokines, which are unique proteins that act as messengers that help regulate immune response. Their studies revealed that elderberry’s antioxidant powers were greater than equal doses of vitamin E and vitamin C. Furthermore, this activity has been shown to also decrease swelling in mucous membranes and sinuses”.

Elderberries are listed in the 2000 Mosby’s Nursing Drug Reference for colds, flu, yeast infections, chest and nasal congestion and hay fever. In Israel, a nation much more open to natural treatments, they have determined that elderberry stimulates the body’s immune system and they are treating cancer and AIDS patients with it.

It seems we are just scratching the surface of what natural plants can do! I have also heard recently that the Department of Agriculture is encouraging farmers to plant and harvest elderberry orchards although I have not checked out that “fact”.

Elderberries have been taken to ease inflammation of the urinary tract and bladder and to help relieve arthritic and rheumatic complaints. Used as a tea it has cured respiratory infections, relieving bronchitis, asthma, sore throat and also reducing high cholesterol without all of the side effects of the statin drugs we are taking in increasing amounts.

Elderberries are usually harvested from mid-August to mid-September. They ripen over a period of 10-15 days – days of bird competition! Only the deepest blue-black berries are harvested and they come off of the stem cluster easily.

I was taught by my mother to put a bag over the cluster and gently pull off the ripened berries, leaving the green or red ones to continue to ripen. I have heard this called “finger-raking” and the description is perfect. Unripe berries contain a mild toxin and should be left to ripen on the bush. I actually went back to my foraged bush about 6 times before collecting enough ripe berries to make a tincture, which was only a measly 2 cups!

These berries are fragile and will sour within a few days unless refrigerated. A good option may be to freeze them daily as your collection grows. The freezing also helps to break down the cell walls of the berries thus making the healing constituents more accessible. It makes them easier to remove from their stems as well.

Either way you decide to get your elderberries, foraging or online it will be well worth the effort just to know you have a very immune boosting, flu-fighting, cold-busting tincture at your disposal! Each trip through the fields to that elderberry bush gave me pleasure in this labor of love. Being outside, being part of the changing of the seasons and seeing the wonder of nature is healing and uplifting all by itself.

Online Alternative: If you do not have time to harvest your own berries or you don’t have access to them there is a simple solution. You can order the dried organic elderberries online from Frontier brand. I think there are other online order options as well but the cost of about $16.50 for a Mylar sealed pound is well worth it. Remember that using dehydrated berries means you use only about ¼ cup per quart of tincture.

Western Blue Elderberries:

For those of you in the Western US, the ripe Blue Elderberries appear a beautiful blue color because the berries are covered in a powdery “bloom”. Under that bloom the ripe berries themselves are dark purple though. They are usually slightly larger than the eastern variety and the bushes are more tree than bush.

Some of the unripe berries can develop the powdery bloom and fool you into thinking they are ripe. Just gently wipe off the bloom and expose the tricky culprits for what they are! I have never tried the western variety but I hear they are versatile and yummy.

Making the Tincture

The hardest part is over! Now all that is left is to mix the tincture.

Simply half fill a quart mason jar with fresh ripe, de-stemmed elderberries. (2 cups)

If you are using dried elderberries, you need only fill to ¼ full. Then pour at least 80 proof vodka over the berries to within 1” of the top of the jar. Cover tightly with a plastic lid and label, including date, and store in a dark place for 5-6 weeks. Shake it lightly daily.

These berries appear reddish in this photo but that is a reflection of the red railing. I have culled any unfit berry until only the best dark berries remain.

1st day

As this ages during the 6 weeks of leaching, it will become much darker and the smell of elderberry will become stronger.

The alcohol will gradually pull out the healing constituents from the berries, making a potent medicine. You can choose to use vegetable glycerin instead of the alcohol, however glycerin doesn’t have quite the same drawing strength as has the alcohol.

If you are concerned about consuming the alcohol or plan to administer this to children you can put a teaspoon of the tincture into hot water to sip for adults and ½ teaspoon for children and much of the alcohol will evaporate, but the medicinal properties remain.

You may add a touch of natural stevia or raw honey if desired as well. I would hesitate to give this tincture to children under two years old. There are other options which we’ll discuss later. It is well known that children under the age of one year should not consume honey.

Label with beginning of 6 weeks. This photo was taken at 12 days. You can see that it is quite a bit darker than at day one.

Day 12: About a month to go. There is a pleasant berry aroma even at this early stage.

Dosage:

  • For Adults: begin with one teaspoon at first sign of a cold or flu. This can be repeated every 4 hours.
  • For Children: 1/2 teaspoon every four hours as needed or you can put ½ teaspoon in very warm water along with some raw honey and sip. This is usually more acceptable for children.

Children or adults can take elderberry syrup, or tonic instead of the tincture. The elderberry syrup is very sweet so you may have to keep it on a high shelf!

Tonic Recipe

  1. Cover about one pound of dried elderberries with 8 cups of good water.
  2. Bring to a light boil, turn down the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Turn off the heat and allow it to sit for 24-36 hours.
  4. Strain through cloth and wring out all the juice.
  5. To 7 cups of juice add 6-7 cups of raw or local honey and
  6. 1 ½ cups of echinacea root glycerin tincture (many people have this purple cone flower growing in their flower gardens and may share a root or two if you ask…I was fortunate and spotted a fallow field full of it last week but have not had the time to harvest any yet) It is the fresh outer layer of the root that is most effective.. It absolutely must be fresh (dug less than a week before using if you are making your own Echinacea tincture)
  7. 1 cup elderflower (optional)
  8. Add vinegar to taste—about ¼ cup +/-. Vinegar will help to preserve the tonic and help with reducing flu symptoms but taste it along the way to make sure it suits you. Children seem to love it. Of course with all of that lovely honey who wouldn’t love this?
  9. Heat just enough to melt the honey and then store in dark glass bottles or freeze in plastic freezer containers. This tonic may spoil if not kept refrigerated. If you use fresh elderberries cover them with water and proceed with the above recipe. This makes a tonic similar to Sambucol or Berry Well, it works just as well and at a much reduced cost.

Elderberry Vinegar

This recipe is from Rachel Weaver who is a master herbalist and reminds me of an old folk medicine and apple cider vinegar recipe book I had many years ago, written by Dr. Jarvis. My husband totally loves this stuff.

  • 4 cups elderberries
  • Raw apple cider vinegar
  • Honey to taste

Here is the process:

  1. Place the 4 cups of stemmed, ripe elderberries in a glass ovenproof dish.
  2. Cover with apple cider vinegar.
  3. Cook in a 300° oven for 1 ½ hours or until the berries burst.
  4. Let the mixture stand overnight, or for at least several hours, then strain through a jelly bag or double cheesecloth.
  5. Add honey to taste while the liquid is still warm. Vinegar has the added benefit of being antiviral.

Elderberry Syrup Recipe

Yield: 1 quart

Make sure all cookware and utensils are stainless steel or glass. Any plastic used will become purple stained . You might want to wear old clothing.

  • 2 pounds elderberries
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 cups raw sugar
  • 1 Cinnamon stick- optional
  • 2 whole cloves- optional
  • A few slices of raw ginger root- optional
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice

Here is the process:

  1. Put the berries, cinnamon, cloves and ginger root into a pot with the water.
  2. Cover.
  3. Bring to a boil, then right away reduce the heat to a very low boil or heavy simmer and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until berries are tender and soft.
  4. Remove spices and set aside.
  5. Pass berries through a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill then pour into large strainer and work the berries with a large spoon into a bowl, getting as much pulp as possible through the strainer.
  6. Discard the skins.
  7. Pour the juice and strained pulp back into the pot, add sugar and spices and cook over moderate heat for another 15 minutes till syrup has thickened. Add lemon juice then cool completely.
  8. Pour into a clean bottle or canning jar and store in the refrigerator. If kept in fridge, it will store for up to one year, if it lasts that long! If you happen to see any mold on the top just skim it off and bring syrup back to a boil again. It will be fine.

You can use this beautiful syrup as an ice cream topping, over yogurt, in a glass of milk or in a glass or in sparkling water over ice….and of course, over pancakes or waffles. Your family will love this immune boosting addition to your medicinal preps! Getting everyone to “take their medicine” will no longer be a chore, I promise.

Final Thoughts

Elderberry is a powerful herb and deserves to be in your herbal toolbox. It modulates the immune system, can lower blood sugar, and is antiviral just to mention a few of its stellar uses. If you don’t have the time or desire to forage for this lovely berry there is the order-online-option that makes this process easier and faster. The money spent and time taken to add this heavy weight to your wellness arsenal is more than worth it.

Infused elderflower oil makes a lovely wound healing salve which I plan to make in the spring when more elderflowers are available.

It is important to note that this herb is excellent at reducing high fevers in children. I have simply put a half teaspoon of the tincture in a ½ cup of hot water and given this to one of my children (years ago) and within a short time the fever broke and allowed her to get the sleep she needed….and Mama too!

Of all the forms of elderberry I have mentioned in this article it is the tincture that packs the most punch. Elderberry has had more scientific studies done than most other herbals and is used all over the world. I don’t know what flu bug the CDC is going to be discussing this flu season but from my experience it is elderberry tincture that will win the day! It’s my recommendation to get some ready a.s.a.p.!

Editor’s Note: If this process is TOO involved for you, I would still recommend considering keeping off the shelf elderberry syrup on hand for nasty colds and sore throats! A reputable brand to check out is Gaia Herbs Black Elderberry Syrup available at this listing.


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Elderberry tincture is a great natural, home remedy to cure many ailments. Learn all about elderberries, their benefits, and how to make your own in our step-by-step guide with images in this article.

  1. I started making elderberry tincture a few years ago and would not be without it!
    Taken as a maintenance dose throughout the flu season has kept us healthy and if we do get sick we take a little extra and are usually well much faster. Wonderful stuff!

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